Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Transwarping through Star Trek Online

Although most of my time is still being spent meandering my way through The Old Republic, when I feel the need for a break from blasters and lightsabers I've been exploring the options provided by phasers and photon torpedoes.  Yeah, not much of a change thematically, but the gameplay is vastly different as is the structure of the games.  I've been dealing with fantasy settings for years, I can handle a glut of sci-fi for a bit.

The new Odyssey class, free to everyone during Anniversary event
Star Trek Online is about to celebrate it's 2nd anniversary (this Friday) and just recently went free to play.  I played the game at release . . . briefly.  It was interesting, but plodding and ultimately unsatisfying.  Some of the systems they had in place just didn't work, or worked in a way that made no sense, or worked sensibly but were worthless.  The ship combat was pretty darn good, sort of Pirates of the Burning Sea in space (I LOVED the ship combat in PotBS, but that was the only thing I enjoyed about the game) but the ground combat was an abysmal mess of sluggish controls and slow painful combats that could leave a player wanting to tear their hair out . . . or maybe their eyes.  I'd say it was actually worse than Pirates of the Burning Sea ground combat, plus it was buggy as heck (I lost track of the number of times my away team members beamed under the surface of the planet leaving me to try and solo a ground mission).

After two years of additional development, the game is much improved.  I'm not sure that someone logging in for the first time in a long time would immediately recognize all the differences (other than being bombarded with a swarm of system messages and character updates from two years worth of patches), as most of it is actually fairly subtle, but the game just plays a lot better, is far more player friendly, and provides a much smoother gameplay experience overall.  Below I'll give a brief overview of each major system.

Ground Combat:
Sniping in shooter mode
Ground combat is still a bit of an ugly duckling for
the game, and I still dread missions with lots of ground combat sequences, but it's vastly improved over the release version.  Mostly it's just much faster.  Enemies seem to have far fewer hit points, or the damage of weapons and special abilities has been increased dramatically.  Either way, you can get through the fights quickly and that's great.  They finally added the ability to set your basic attack to autofire, an omission that made switching from space to ground combat jerky and disjointed.  It's extremely nice to not have to click that button over and over and over and over.  Unless, of course, you switch to the new "shooter" mode for ground combat.  I've tried it, and it's not bad.  It's an over-the-shoulder 3rd person view with a targeting reticle, sort of like Mass Effect.  You shoot with a left mouse click, alt-fire with a right mouse click, and melee with a center mouse click.  It actually makes the basic shooting combat much more fun, but I found it much harder to use special abilities, so I've generally stuck to the "rpg" mode.

Space Combat:
Space combat is still great, I don't think they've changed it much at all.  It's possible they've made low level space battles easier --I'm not really sure as it's possible I just know more about the game and do better now.  Of course, that means if you hated it before you're still going to hate it now.

Skill Gains:
New skill screen
They've completely revamped the ground and space skills that you spend your skill points on, combining or eliminating categories, clearly marking what the skills do, and providing player characters the ability to train bridge officers with rank 3 combat abilities if they spend enough points in certain skills.  For example, rather than having a skill to increase phaser damage, another to increase disrupter damage, a third to increase plasma damage, and so on, there are now two skills -- one to increase energy weapon damage and one to increase projectile (torpedo) weapon damage.  You also don't have to choose which type of ship to increase your skills in, you just get better at captaining ships.  It makes increasing your combat potential independent of the  equipment you find, craft, or buy.  You just get better, and that's a great change.

They've also greatly narrowed the number of ground skills, consolidating things into a few sensible categories.  You are now forced to split your point expenditures between space and ground skills (3/4 for space, 1/4 for ground) which prevents you from being an unstoppable monster in space combat that couldn't kill a Klingon blood flea on the ground.  Another sensible change.

I have not experimented with the new crafting system, but I know they've completely revamped it at least twice since launch.  The launch version of crafting was really quite stupid, so whatever it is now, it has to be better.

Sector Space:
One of my gripes with the launch version of the game was Sector Space, the candy-coated abstraction of interstellar space was nothing short of painful.  I understood why they did it, and what they were trying to accomplish, but it grated on the nerves and was extremely immersion breaking.  In the current version of the game you can turn the overlay off, and even if you leave it on it's much more subdued than the original version.  It's still not what I'd really like to see, but it's an improvement for sure.

PvE Content:
The missions themselves haven't really changed, but how you get access to them has.  There's a whole new interface that pushes content to the player rather than you having to flail about trying to figure out where to go or who to talk to.  The main storyline missions are provided in order through this interface, and it can also be used to queue for group PvE or PvP combat.  The game also has events that run for an hour starting on the hour, and the current event is detailed on this screen, along with information on how to access it.

Overall it makes for a much more pleasant leveling experience, and remains useful at the level cap as you can use it to re-run old missions, join task forces, etc.

The Foundry:
Another feature I've yet to use is The Foundry, a tool used by players to create missions for other players much like City of Heroes' Architect.  I understand that there are also daily missions with real rewards that involve running Foundry missions (as in Daily: Run Foundry Mission 0/1).  Sounds like good stuff, and I'll check it out eventually.

Free to Play:
Obviously the biggest change is the switch to the Free to Play model, and I have to say Star Trek Online probably has the most generous F2P scheme of any game that's made the switch.  Free players are not denied any access to any content at all (unlike City of Heroes), or relegated to only playing certain "builds" (unlike Champions Online).  Instead, free players are limited to only two characters, have a cap on the amount of credits they can store, smaller inventory, and don't get all the free bridge officers, ships, and duty officers that subscribed players get.  However, they can easily get those things using the cash shop, so it really is a case of choosing between "pay as you go" and "all inclusive".  Free players are barely second class citizens here, they're simply paying a different way.  I can easily continue playing my Vice Admiral character without paying a dime, and not miss out on anything.  I can only assume the difference between the Champions Online model a Star Trek Online model are a result of the acquisition by Perfect World Entertainment.  I never thought I'd be thanking PWE for anything, but they've overseen a great F2P transition.

Overall, I think Star Trek Online has come a long way over the past two years.  It still isn't a game for everyone, but if you'd thought about trying it, or tried it but didn't quite like it, now is a great time to give it a go.  The game is free, and heck, if you log in between February 3rd and 6th, get a character to at least level 5 and run a special mission, you'll get a free ship.  Sure you can't pilot it until level 50, but it's still a free ship that would normally cost $10-15 in the store.  You can't beat free, right?

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